For those who aren’t following this issue, Georgia HB 1322 is a bill proposed this year which intends to block the release of graphic images of victims from release to the mainstream public. It was proposed in response to Hustler Magazines request for the images of the decapitated body of Meredith Emerson, a hiker killed two years ago. We are tracking this legislation on our page, Georgia Open Records Act The bill passed in the house, preventing only the release of graphic photos. However, this past week, the senate amended the bill to include recordings of the suffering of someone or any recordings which would cause emotional distress.
Now this law is just one of many laws introduced this year centering on protecting the rights of crime victims. Numerous states have introduced laws to block the release of 911 calls this year including Ohio, to prevent playing them on the news, Florida, South Carolina and Wisconsin, all blocking release entirely. (To see a full list of proposed legislation we are tracking, see: Proposed reforms in state sunshine laws, 2010). Obviously the issue of protecting personal privacy is a major problem for FOIA laws across the country. The line between the public’s right to monitor their police and emergency response personnel’s practices and a victim’s right to privacy is a vague gray line that often gets caught up in serious court battles. However, after reading the FOIA law proposed in Georgia, I am left wondering if it can be taken too far.
The Georgia Senate’s move to exempt recordings on police cameras of individuals suffering, without appropriate protections, can easily turn into a method for emergency response teams to shield problems from the public eye. Under this exemption, police departments can reasonably choose to shield videos of police violence due to the nature of the content. Especially if the decision to exempt the images comes from within the police department itself. The police cameras were installed in police cruisers partially with the intention of protecting the public from potential police harassment. Creating this exemption can easily prevent the public and the media from monitoring the activities of their police and emergency response teams and thus open the door to potential problems.
Due to the nature of this sensitive subject, we would like the House to seriously consider modifying the legislation so as to incorporate checks against the gross abuse of such an exemption. Checks, similar to those in the original law, should be included so as to permit media organizations to view the files and report on them while still preventing their release on mainstream sources. The law should also permit victims access to the documents in question and the ability to release those documents, if they so desire to the public. Finally, the House should consider establishing a third party system, through the attorney general or a similar elected official that will remove the decision of what files to exempt from the police departments to a potentially more neutral party. This proposed legislation can be a valuable exemption, but only if, like all things in government, it is checked against abuse by other powers.